A GCE Biology course developed in partnership with the University of York

Visual Literacy as an Issue for Advanced Biology

  • How do students interpret existing visual material, and how can they be helped with this?
  • How should visual material be presented so that students do interpret it as hoped?

As part of the development of Salters-Nuffield Advanced Biology, we held a seminar at the Nuffield Foundation in June 2001.

Simon Gates described his experience of pupils not always interpreting drawings in the way expected, illustrating this using pictures from biology textbooks. Simon explained strategies for helping students, including explaining the conventions used in biological drawings. He showed how lines may be boundaries or structures in their own right. Sometimes what looks like empty space is a structure, sometimes it is the space between structures, sometimes it is an artefact of the way the diagram is presented. For instance, diagrams of cell structure frequently show a gap between the cell membrane and the cell wall.

Dean Madden of the National Centre for Biotechnology Education (NCBE), University of Reading said that text and pictures should be thought of as a continuum. Design and typography are also important: a well-written piece can fail completely if badly presented. Cartoons can be used to attract attention and to reinforce messages which are given in the text not the pictures; how they are not just for children, and very sophisticated messages can be conveyed.

Photographs to illustrate equipment and instructions and equipment give reality and are often used in, for instance, DIY books for adults. However, children have difficulty in relating to photographs of equipment which is different from what they have, and there are also problems with photographs dating.

Bill Indge, author and examiner, said that the problem is that pictures are often produced at the end of a piece of work, when the writing is finished. However, students often look at the pictures first, and the text afterwards.

Exam papers have changed over time: 20 years ago they had no diagrams. Exam boards often find that photographs are expensive and difficult to use. Diagrams are limited by the fact that candidates have difficulty in:

  • linking 2D diagrams with 3D reality
  • realising that diagrams are only a model, and do not represent reality (for instance enzymes do not really have a lock/key structure; it makes no difference whether a Krebs Cycle is drawn clockwise or anti-clockwise)
  • relating diagrams in exam papers to what is shown in their textbooks
  • understanding scale and magnification.

Candidates do not do well when they try to reproduce complex 3D artwork in an exam. Bill Indge says that good practice in exam questions includes:

  • an introduction which sets the diagram in context
  • a clear distinction between a drawing which represents reality and a diagram

The general assumption is that diagrams are understood by all and help to make text simpler to understand, but this is not necessarily so. Meanwhile, examiners are placing increasing emphasis on continuous prose rather than pictures.

Agreed conventions in diagrams are needed, but the approach adopted by the Institute of Biology needs to be developed further.

Lindsey Charles from Heinemann publishers said that animation can be used to show how representations of structure from macro to micro relate to each other; however, changes of style are needed at the molecular level. There is a danger of producing visual wall-paper when a picture is needed but there is nothing to convey visually. Still diagrams may be better for, for instance, photosynthesis when animation may show a process happening slowly and sequentially rather than instantaneously.

The Salters-Nuffield Advanced Biology team are building into the course the development of skills needed for the interpretation of biological diagrams, rather than just assuming they are developed along with other skills at advanced level.

You can read more about this subject on pages 2-3 of the  Nov 01 SNAB newsletter (406 KB) .